A virus traced back to China’s Hubei province has infected 10 people in the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where experts warned that poor conditions at internment camps could lead to an epidemic after authorities confirmed the first two cases in the region last week.
On Jan. 23, Chinese state media cited local health authorities in the XUAR as saying that a 47-year-old man identified by the surname Li and a 52-year-old man identified as Gu had been confirmed infected by the novel coronavirus (nCoV). Both had been to Hubei’s capital Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have been first transmitted to humans.
On Tuesday, the official China News Service cited information published on an XUAR Healthcare Committee website which said that 10 people had been confirmed infected with nCoV in the region as of a day earlier.
Authorities had placed 204 people under observation at medical facilities who had been in close contact with carriers of the virus, nine of whom have since been discharged, the media outlet reported.
Meanwhile, authorities continue to search for a person who arrived in the XUAR capital Urumqi by train from Wuhan on Jan. 20 after sharing a compartment with an infected passenger, the official Urumqi Evening News reported on Monday.
Also on Monday, the official Tianshan Net website reported that the XUAR will suspend all travel into and out of the region as part of a bid to “strengthen management of the inter-provincial passenger transportation system,” adding that all pre-purchased tickets will be “unconditionally refunded” to customers.
According to the XUAR Highway Transportation Administration, use of all nine inter-provincial highways leading in and out of the region have been suspended since Jan. 23.
The highways include five from Urumqi to Gansu province and neighboring Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, one from Kumul (in Chinese, Hami) prefecture to Gansu, one from Korla (Kuerle) city in Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture to Qinghai province, and two from Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture to Sichuan and Anhui provinces.
Xinjiang University in Urumqi on Monday announced that the start of its spring semester will be postponed in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, urging students not to return to campus until notified.
The university said in a statement that students and teachers who are infected or being monitored for infection will only be permitted to return to campus after they are discharged from the hospital.
But while the the XUAR government has adopted several measures to stem the spread of the virus, there have been no indications that local authorities intend to shutter the region’s internment camps, where they have detained as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
Amid the growing threat in the XUAR, Uyghur activists in the U.S. have launched the #VirusThreatinCamps hashtag campaign on social media to draw attention to the cases of friends and family held in the camps.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Bahram K. Sintash, who launched the #VirusThreatinTheCamps campaign, on Sunday tweeted that “Uyghurs overseas and in the region have been deeply concerned about their loved ones health in the #ConcentrationCamps,” adding that the fears have “turned into horror since … #coronavirus spread through #Uyghur region.”
He noted that China has taken preventative measures such as shutting down movie theaters, “but not camps.”
Uyghur camp survivor Tursunay Bawudun, a nurse who was detained for 18 months, told RFA, the prospect of the virus spreading to the Uyghur camps is "all I think about."
"I can’t even sleep. If the virus spreads into the camps, they will not survive. There will be mass death,” she said.
RFA has confirmed dozens of cases of deaths in detention or shortly after release since the internment system began, and while only a handful can be definitively linked to torture or abuse, several appear to be the result of “willful negligence” by authorities who do not provide access to sufficient treatment or poor camp conditions that exacerbate an existing medical condition.
Speaking to RFA last week after the confirmation of the first two cases in the XUAR, Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said a spread of nCoV to the region’s internment camps would have “serious implications” for Uyghur detainees and that “the lives of millions of people will be at stake.”
“China should do everything in its power to prevent the spread of the Wuhan virus into any camps because the consequences will be catastrophic, resulting possibly in the deaths of tens of thousands of Uyghurs arbitrarily detained in the past three years,” he said at the time.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Gulchera Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.